Portrait: The Hiester Family, The Pennsylvania German Society
William M. Hiester reserves the dubious, if not politically courageous distinction as Senate Speaker (16 ballots-vote) during the so-called “Know-Nothing Legislature.” Historian Richard Snyder noted that the “anarchy and ineptitude of the session failed to pass any legislation of meaning.” He further acknowledged passage of the “jug law” as the only deliberation of consequence and regarded the General Assembly’s failure to elect a United States Senator as a black mark on state government. Hiester’s session, nevertheless, achieved a modicum of legislative success.
William was the grandson of General Peter Muhlenberg and the son of Isaac Hiester and the former Hester Muhlenberg. Born May 15, 1818 in Reading, William graduated from Maryland’s West Nottingham Academy in 1839, matriculated from Bristol College, read law at Harvard, received an AM degree in 1843, was admitted to the Reading bar in 1840, and practiced law in Erie four years before returning to Reading to establish a legal partnership with his cousin Henry A. Muhlenberg. He married Julia F. Roland in 1849.
Hiester and his cousin became leading Democrats in Berks County, and in late 1852, William succeeded Henry to the state Senate. He chaired the Judiciary Committee, and in 1855, the upper house elected Hiester, Speaker.
The senator backed the 1854 Philadelphia consolidation act, the Ten-Hour Labor Law, and the sale of Pennsylvania’s main-line public works (canal) project. He supported an 1855 amendment to the femme sole trader act, granting married women adoption rights and the privilege to retain property in cases of desertion. A monumental issue of the time, he supported the Pennsylvania Railroad main line’s tonnage tax exemption, a matter of no small future conflict. The senator attracted temperance criticism for opposing passage of a bill proscribing the sale of liquor on Sundays, as he futilely fought Philadelphia Senator Borrodaile Browne’s infamous “Jug Law.” In accordance with his constituency, Hiester voted against the 1854 Common Schools bill.
Retiring from the legislature in 1858, Governor William Packer appointed the former Speaker as his Secretary of the Commonwealth. Hiester supported Democratic presidential hopeful Stephen A. Douglass during the 1860 campaign but became disillusioned with the party and backed Republican Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, Governor Curtin commissioned William, major in an 1863 Pennsylvania emergency regiment. The senator retired from public life, accepting directorships at the Reading Library, the Charles Evans Cemetery Company, and the Reading Gas Company. He died in Reading on August 16, 1878.
Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania, ed. Charles Robson (Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishing Co., 1894), 333. Snyder, 77;Valeria E. Clymer Hill, A Genealogy of the Hiester Family (Reading: Reading Eagle Press, 1941), 33.
Morton L. Montgomery, Historical and Biographical Annals of Berks County, Pennsylvania (Chicago: J.H. Beers, 1909), 331, 756, 1692; Hill, 33; Note: The term “Know Nothing” is derived from the American Party’s typical and secretive response to critics’ questions regarding the proceedings of their caucus, i.e., “I know nothing.”